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Executive Spotlight: Have You Planned for the Possibility of Disability?


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Four action items to minimize the potential impact to your family and wealth.

Just as you have risk mitigation plans in place to protect your business, it is as important to have safeguards in place to protect your family and personal life in the event of your disability.

While it is uncomfortable to think about your own disability, avoiding the topic can carry a significant emotional — and financial — cost for you and those you love most. The risk for working executives, who may have their cash flow impacted by disability, is even greater. They may be subject to potential loss of earnings and negative impacts on the vesting of outstanding equity awards.

Planning ahead can give you and your family greater security, control and peace of mind, and increase the likelihood of fulfilling your goals.

In the following article, we explore how your wealth plan could be affected in the event of your disability and offer four action items to minimize the impact to your family and wealth.


Be clear about your wishes

In the event of your disability or death, a clear statement about how you want your concentrated stock to be managed can be invaluable to your family and trustees. This document, known as a Statement of Wealth Transfer Intent (SOWTI), can help you:

  • Articulate your philosophy of wealth

  • Allow for a more purposeful transfer of wealth

  • Provide critical context for family members and promote family harmony by avoiding misunderstandings

Your SOWTI should include a specific discussion of the role the company stock has played in your life, as well as your wishes for its retention or sale in the event of disability or death. Learn more about how to create a SOWTI.


Understand how disability could impact your equity compensation

If you were to become disabled — either while employed, or during retirement while you still own a large concentration of company stock — your equity compensation plan could force a change in your holdings. Some company plans may treat payouts due to events beyond the executive’s control (e.g., disability or death) more liberally; however, there is no guarantee or universal treatment of awards. Decisions often are made on a case-by-case, grant-by-grant, company-specific basis with provisions contained either in the stock option agreement or made by the board or compensation committee.

Many companies’ equity compensation plans allow for partial or full acceleration of vesting upon an executive’s death or disability. On the other hand, some stock awards will be forfeited in the event of disability, especially if an executive does not meet specific criteria related to age, years of service, performance criteria, event triggers or employment status.

Disability may also result in accelerated vesting of equity compensation, changes in valuation related to market conditions and stock price variations, cash flow impact and associated tax liability.

Each company and individual award plan may have different requirements and triggers for vesting or forfeiture. If disability or death is an event that accelerates the vesting of shares, your concentration risk could increase substantially. In some cases, the clock starts ticking upon death or disability, which may result in financial consequences for your family if they fail to act quickly.

Review your employment agreement and equity plan documents to confirm how stock awards and options would vest in the event of disability or death. Share these documents with your advisors, successor agents and trustees to ensure your plan accounts for these terms.

The period of exercise for stock options may be shortened to as little as 60 days after a disability event.


Identify weak spots in your plan

Revocable trusts are a common, and valuable, strategy in wealth and estate planning. However, the trust should contain clear and comprehensive direction on the retention or disposition of the stock. Multiple options exist for management of concentrated stock ownership, including naming an advisor to direct sales of the stock or granting trustees the discretion to diversify the holding over a longer period.

In the absence of clear direction, your trustees could be forced to sell some or all of the stock because of the duty of diversification. If your wish is to retain the concentrated position without exposing your trustee to potential liability for failure to diversify, you must include specific provisions about retention in the trust documents. You may wish to consider directing your trustee to retain a small portion as a legacy for your family rather than retaining the entire position.

Commit to establishing and executing a detailed plan that allows for the possibility of immediate disposition if the stock price of your concentrated holding increases dramatically, or if greater liquidity needs arise. For instance, your trust may grant the trustee authority to dispose of stock up to a certain amount or engage in hedging the concentrated position to reduce risk of loss and provide income. Your trustee may need to consult with your company’s legal team regarding restrictions, reporting and other trading requirements. Trading restrictions for stock may be lifted in the event of disability, which could allow your trustee and family members to engage in sales or gifts involving the stock, including to meet liquidity needs for your family.

A clear plan to set forth specific guidance regarding your concentrated holdings may prevent costly errors and missed opportunities by even the most well-intentioned trustee. Adding a provision to your trust with distinct language that addresses the duty to diversify and spells out your wishes in unambiguous language may avoid these risks.


Determine who is in charge

It is critical to grant authority to a third party to act on your behalf and make decisions about your stock awards and options should you become unable to do so. Some companies permit designation of an authorized party or agent of a financial power of attorney to transact in company stock in the event of disability. However, a more effective option may be to designate the trustee of your revocable trust for all stock transactions.

Your appointed agent will be tasked with important, consequential decisions, including whether and when to exercise options, and whether to sell some or all of the shares received from exercising or from restricted stock vesting.

No matter whom you select, be sure they have “the skill and the will” to make equity compensation decisions and manage your stock concentration wisely.

Bringing it all together

Your wealth plan should consider the impact of disability on your executive compensation package and equity awards within the larger context of your overall wealth plan. Be sure to clearly state your wishes, that your trust explicitly spells out how the concentration should be managed and that you designate a trusted person to make decisions on your behalf.

By proactively planning for disability, you can be confident that your family understands your wishes — and that your wealth will be managed as you intend.


Plan for Disability

Learn how to minimize the potential impact to family and wealth.

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  1. Source: Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic | CDC.

  2. 2019 Deloitte Domestic Stock Plan Design Survey

  3. Northern Trust and Forbes Insights, joint survey of senior corporate executives.


This information is not intended to be and should not be treated as legal, investment, accounting or tax advice and is for informational purposes only. Readers, including professionals, should under no circumstances rely upon this information as a substitute for their own research or for obtaining specific legal, accounting or tax advice from their own counsel. All information discussed herein is current only as of the date appearing in this material and is subject to change at any time without notice.

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